05 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The Tong Wars

By Eliza Tucker

All wars begin on smaller scales: a push for more freedom, a governmental revolution, or the desire for resources. New York City of the mid-1800s was no different. Dozens of gangs, small and large, violent and not-so-violent, ran the city with their support of the police through grafts and vice rackets.

Originally, life within the Chinese communities was dominated by a few large family and district associations with restrictive membership. As a protective response to their dominance mutual aid associations, so-called tongs, emerged. The tongs adopted the norms and values of the Triad subculture. Their secretive nature, combined with the fact that they could recruit members without traditional restrictions, enabled them to overpower the family and district associations and to take on the social functions of arbitration, protection and exploitation in Chinatown. A tong is not a criminal organization per se, but a natural means of obtaining and using mutually obligate bonds (guanxi) for both criminal and non-criminal purposes.
Organizing Chinatown: Race and Racketeering in New York City, 1890-1910
Jeffrey Scott McIllwain
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004

Photo: Mock Duck

When the tongs first emigrated to the American West, they served as mutual aid societies. Quickly the 'mutual aid' provided began to resemble the strongarm tactics of the mafia and Irish mob. The tongs spread across the US to Chicago, Boston, and New York City. In the early 1900s, two Chinese gangs took hold of the few Manhattan blocks known as Chinatown. Led by newcomer Sai Wing Mock, known as Mock Duck or "Clay Pigeon", the Hip Sings launched a war against the much larger On Leong Tong, led by press-and-police pet, Tom Lee.

Mock Duck, at age 22, politely asked the older, legendary Tom Lee for half the revenues of all of the On Leong gambling and prostitution rackets. After a long stare, Tom Lee laughed and walked away, without saying a word.

Two days later, Mock Duck set fire to an On Leong boarding house, killing two tong members. Shortly after, an On Leong member was attacked by two hatchetmen. Tom Lee replied to the attack with an order to kill all Hip Sing members, with an emphasis on Mock Duck.

Mock Duck survived stabbings and shootings, and began wearing a chain mail vest under his clothes. Known for his terrible aim with a gun, Mock Duck soon realized his best chance against the hatchetmen was to stoop to the ground, duck his head, shut his eyes, and shoot two pistols in any direction he pleased. Using this method, Mock Duck rarely failed to hit his attackers, but often hit innocent bystanders as well.

Tom Lee put a $1000 price on Mock Duck's head--that's almost $25,000 in today's currency--and the warrant fueled the fires in the Tong Wars. Meanwhile, Mock Duck was busy securing his tong's ties to the Four Brothers, China's oldest and most respected family guild. The Four Brothers joined the war against the On Leongs after Mock Duck promised them cultural power in New York. Mock Duck also drafted the two most dangerous hatchetmen in San Francisco, who are estimated to have murdered around 100 men in the Tong Wars.

While Tom Lee had the police force in his pocket, so Mock Duck appealed to the religious reformers for added support. He told the popular Rev. Charles Parkhurst about the good Chinese trying to live honestly, and about the terrible vices the On Leongs pushed upon them, such as the singsong girls (prostitutes) and the opium dens. Mock Duck provided Parkhurst with a list of On Leong's establishment, and Parkhurst used his favor with most of New York's upper class to force the authorities into action.

But Mock Duck kept the Ace up his sleeve. Tom Lee realized that Mock Duck hadn't given Parkhurst any addresses along On Leong's Mott Street, from whence the On Leong's highest revenue came. Tom Lee couldn't turn over any information about the Hip Sings in retaliation if he wanted to stay in business.

In 1906, Tom Lee finally conceded, only to try to rebuild the On Leongs in 1909. This time, the police involved themselves fully, working toward peace more than profit. These battles, fought within just five diminutive city blocks, were responsible for approximately 350 deaths.